Rethinking Professional Development: Using Mindfulness to Explore the Emotional Labor of Teaching

Taking the time to practice mindfulness is an excellent opportunity for teachers to stop, sit quietly, and bring awareness to their emotions and how those emotions may be affecting them physiologically.
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One of my favorite quotes about teaching comes from Parker Palmer's book The Courage to Teach (1998/2007). Palmer wisely observes, "Teaching, like any truly human activity, emerges from one's inwardness, for better or worse" (p. 4). This is such a profound quote because we often forget teaching is emotional labor. Teachers have to manufacture emotions, such a joy and enthusiasm, and teachers have to suppress emotions, such as annoyance or anger. This incongruence between what one actually feels and what one is required to express can cause emotional dissonance. "Emotional dissonance is the basis for the discomfort of emotional labor, which can cause cynicism, stress, and burnout" (Larrivee, 2012, p. 37).

Due to the emotional labor of teaching, this is why our program at Mindfulness First includes a social and emotional skills component. Practicing mindfulness can help teachers develop a greater understanding of how their emotions affect their work and, therefore, build emotional resilience. In our first professional development session with the teachers at Crockett Elementary, we used an exercise from Patricia Jennings's book Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom (2015). The teachers were asked to close their eyes and call to mind a particularly difficult student. Then the teachers were asked to consider the emotions they experience when recalling this memory. They were also asked to consider how their bodies felt when they thought about this memory. Through this simple five-minute exercise, we explored how we experience strong emotions in our bodies and the potential effects of those emotions. This is where mindfulness can help. Being aware of our emotions and how they impact is essential for maintaining our social and emotion well-being.

This practice is not traditionally considered "professional development," but it should be. Emotional stress and poor emotional management are cited as causes for teachers becoming dissatisfied and leaving the profession (Darling-Hammond, 2001; Montgomery & Rupp, 2005).

Taking the time to practice mindfulness is an excellent opportunity for teachers to stop, sit quietly, and bring awareness to their emotions and how those emotions may be affecting them physiologically. Our goal at Mindfulness First is to help not only educate teachers on the importance of taking this time, but to provide them with an array of practices to choose from, so they may develop their own practices once our time with them is done.

I know firsthand mindfulness has the power to transform my work and relationships, but I was curious to know if other teachers who practiced mindfulness were able to bring this awareness into the classroom. For my dissertation, I interviewed K-12 teachers who self-identified as mindfulness practitioners. A couple of the teachers spoke of a "shift" they experienced when they began to be more mindful in the classroom. A comment from Sarah, a high school teacher, exemplifies the potential shift mindfulness offers. Sarah explained,

In the past when kids would yell at me, I would feel tense. I tensed up. I would get defensive, and I would get into a power struggle with them. Now I just check in with myself and how am I feeling in the moment and then respond versus react.

Stopping before reacting is what is called mindful awareness. Bringing her mindfulness practices to the classroom helped Sarah reposition how she reacted to difficult situations. This is what makes me believe that the opportunity to learn and practice mindfulness skills must be offered to all teachers. Such simple practices can lead to profound changes.

The professional development we are doing at Crockett is not the norm. But I argue it is time well spent.

In our rush to reform education, we have forgotten a simple truth: reform will never be achieved by renewing appropriations, restructuring schools, rewriting curricula, and revising texts if we continue to demean and dishearten the human resources called the teacher on whom so much depends (Palmer, 1998/2007, p. 4).

It is amazing to be part of the Crockett Elementary community where there is such an investment in the school's most valuable resource, the teachers.

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